Revelation 2-3 contains seven letters to churches, five of which contained calls to repent. Most of them were compromised in faith and practice. Even a cursory reading of the epistles in the New Testament reveals that this is not uncommon. The last chapter of Nehemiah provides an example of just how quickly a community can slide into egregious error.
Brown The concluding paragraphs of Nehemiah’s memoirs describe the reformation which took place under his vigorous leadership. Glaring sins had to be exposed and expunged, and damaging social problems publicly acknowledged and rectified.
This chapter summarizes Nehemiah’s reformations during his return to Jerusalem that possibly took place during a second term. The first three verses dealt with the requirement to separate from foreigners who worship false gods. The following section deals with a problem of aiding a foreign enemy of the people of God (4-9).
Nehemiah was not afraid of controversy. It’s not that he sought it out, but his commitment to the glory and honor of God led him to hold others accountable. He was not immune from the need for accountability himself (Neh. 5:10-11).
Unfortunately, the typical individual and church is reluctant to respond to sin, and when they do it is unnecessarily complicated and nuanced. The truth of it is, Sinful compromise bothers godly people. As it should. Whether we are responding to our own sin, or the sin of others, we should strive to be swift and decisive.
Read Nehemiah 13:4-9
Defiling the Temple (4-5)
Nehemiah’s first reformation prepares us for the next reformation. Tobiah was an Ammonite, one of the prime examples of someone the people needed to separate from (Neh. 13:1-3).
Eliashib empties a large chamber to make room for his relative—and enemy of the people of God—Tobiah. You can read about the ways he mocked and discouraged Nehemiah’s work (2:10; 4:3, 7; 6:1, 12, 17-19). Eliashib and Tobiah were probably related to one another through marriage (cf. “close relative” in Ruth 2:20).
In order to make room for Tobiah, Eliashib had to remove from the chamber a large amount of the offerings he was responsible to protect. What did he do with the offerings and vessels that were in that chamber?
We can safely assume the offerings and services dependent on the resources in that large room were placed on hold (10:38). Considering the next section (Neh. 13:10-13), we can assume Eliashib’s actions minimized the importance of these offerings. It seems the priests were no longer collecting them.
In order to defile the temple with Tobiah’s presence, Eliashib reveals a weakened commitment to preserve the purity of the temple. He neglected his responsibility. Was he always an imposter?
An Intentional Oversight
Eliashib was one of the leaders heavily involved in rebuilding the wall (3:1)! He supported Nehemiah’s mission. Some have suggested that this is a different Eliashib.
- Eliashib is often referred to as the high priest (Neh. 3:1, 20; 13:28). This “priest” is someone else (Neh. 13:4).
- Oversight of the storerooms is not a duty of the high priest.
I think all of these references to Eliashib are the same person.
- It would be strange not to distinguish the two, especially in the same chapter.
- Wouldn’t Eliashib volunteer to oversee the storerooms in order to get away with housing Tobiah in one (12:44).
Even if this is a different Eliashib, it is hard to imagine the high priest was entirely ignorant of what was taking place in the temple where he regularly served. At the very least, his oversight had significant gaps.
Friendship With the World
For Eliashib, relationships superseded God’s Word. He marginalized the will of God in order to prioritize the will of man. The authority of God’s Word was compromised by the one holding the highest earthly office tasked with protecting it.
It is clear from the parting commission given by Christ, that one of the Church’s primary responsibilities is to make disciples of all nations. That involves going out into the world and testifying to the greatness of our Savior. However, one of the parallel themes in ministry is the warning not to be influenced by the world in the process.
We can easily be conformed to the world, so we must renew our minds (Rom. 12:2). If we aren’t careful, we will be conformed to our former ignorance (1 Pt. 1:14). Our aim will transition into friendship with the world—which is enmity with God (Jam. 4:4). A love for the world is incompatible with a love for God (1 Jn. 2:15). We must learn to engage the world without being absorbed by its sinful outlook and patterns.
Taking Defilement Seriously
Apparently, Eliashib was accountable to no one. Without a healthy oversight, we eventually cave in to temptation. We won’t be convinced of our need for accountability until we learn to take defilement in the community seriously. It begins by taking your own sin seriously.
Are you reluctant to confess particular sins? Has maintaining your relationships taken precedent over remaining faithful to God? Maybe your struggle is selfishness, arrogance, or laziness. Have you grown comfortable with a reputation for being irreverent?
Are you ready to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand if they cause you to sin (Mt. 5:28-30)? Eliminate the source of temptation altogether if you can. “Be killing sin,” says John Owen, “or it will be killing you.”
We must keep in mind that personal sins will impact the community (2 Cor. 6:16). But that also means that a commitment to personal holiness will have a corporate impact.
We serve the Great High Priest who refused defilement of every kind and promises to be our advocate at the right hand of the Father. Jesus didn’t make obedience complicated or nuanced. He came to do the will of his Father—which involves never losing anyone the Father gave him to redeem (Jn. 6:37-40).
Refusing to take sin seriously, leads to…
Neglecting the Temple (6-7)
We are not given an explanation for Nehemiah’s departure. This marked the end of his first term as governor (Neh. 5:14), but we don’t know if he intended this all along or if his presence was requested. All we know is that he was gone when this compromise took place. And when he returned he acted with the same authority he previously had as their governor.
His request for “leave” implies a temporary return to Jerusalem. I don’t understand why Nehemiah didn’t remain in Jerusalem permanently. But we have every reason to commend him for his concern. He didn’t abandon Jerusalem just because he completed his primary task to rebuild the wall. He remained involved to a significant degree.
The men Nehemiah entrusted with the oversight of the city were clearly compromised regarding this matter. Did they fear the religious authorities (Eliashib) or foreign civil authorities (Tobiah)? Either way, they did not fear their moral compromise before God. And compromise leads to further compromise.
Nehemiah noticed that the temple was being neglected (cf. Neh. 10:39) and he was not reluctant to deal with the matter swiftly. He doesn’t mince words. This was pure evil. It wasn’t a slight misstep. Nor was it a minor mistake. This was intentional rebellion against God’s revealed will. And it was even more heinous because of the authority inherent in the office Eliashib held.
We have a serious cancer in our denomination revealed by an unwillingness to discipline sin.
Ian Hamilton “You don’t judge the health of a church by her standards, but by her willingness to exercise godly discipline,” (GRN Conference 2022).
In light of that, I would say most denominations are unhealthy.
Lifeway Research (2018) According to the phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, 16 percent of pastors say their church has disciplined a member in the last year…Overall, about half of evangelical pastors (49 percent) and two-thirds of mainline pastors (67 percent) say they don’t know of a case where someone was disciplined at their church.
I’m not suggesting that we should start excommunicating every example of documented sin. The exercise of church discipline is rightly reserved for things that “bring disgrace or scandal on the church” (Hodge). But, I know that heinous sins have not ceased.
The Church leadership is simply looking the other way when disciplinable offenses take place. We have grown derelict in our duties. The muscles of the church—which are strictly spiritual in nature—have atrophied from disuse.
Ordain Men Who Are Qualified and Concerned
The kind of men we want equipped for the office of elder and deacon are not only qualified (1 Tim. 3), but those who notice compromise and are not reluctant to respond to it. We want men who are bothered by sin; men who are willing to discipline those bringing scandal into our church and denomination.
Unfortunately, men like that are rare. Too many have become silenced and paralyzed by a culture that is hostile toward biblical masculinity.
We know that God has promised to preserve us individually and corporately. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). He has guaranteed that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church (Matt. 16:18).
And one of the ways he accomplishes that is by raising up men who are willing to…
Cleansing the Temple (8-9)
Nehemiah wasn’t interested in a drawn-out investigation. He doesn’t call the leaders together to hear their well-reasoned excuses. He didn’t need to gather more testimonies and information. He needed to take immediate action.
Tobiah’s belongings were removed so the vessels and offerings could be restored. One of the goals of church discipline is the purity of the church. It goes along with the glory of God and the restoration of the sinner.
Nehemiah was unique among his contemporaries in Jerusalem. Holiness was non-negotiable. What would Jesus do? How long does it take to make a whip?
Nehemiah’s anger foreshadows Christ overturning the tables of the money changers (Mt. 21:17; Jn 2:14-15). This was a righteous indignation against evil. Instead of flipping tables over in the temple, Nehemiah was throwing furniture out of the temple.
Discipline Reveals Commitment
I understand the need for patience and caution when it comes to disciplinary actions. But, it seems the church has become so soft and slow to react that we would rather tolerate shameful sin than expose and expunge what is clearly evil.
Discipline is a mark of the true church because it reveals a genuine commitment to the authority of God and his Word. It is hypocritical to say you are committed to someone, but that you’re unwilling to defend them against threats. If you’re committed to your spouse, you will confront whoever and whatever threatens her safety.
If you are unwilling to do that either your love is too weak or your fear is too great. Or maybe it’s both. Regardless, honest Christians will not last long in an environment that lacks doctrinal and moral accountability. As difficult as it is, discipline is a necessary component of faithful gospel ministry. We don’t have to enjoy it, but we dare not neglect it.
Righteous Christlike Anger
Do you ever experience a righteous anger when the holiness of God is mocked or compromised? “Be angry and do not sin,” (Eph. 4:26). Have you learned how to do that? It’s certainly easy to sin in our anger, but it is possible to remain self-controlled and above reproach, yet consumed by a righteous indignation for the glory and honor of God.
Those who do should prepare to be called Pharisees, legalists, fundamentalists, old school, and entirely out of touch with the culture. The defendants will blame the prosecutors for being on a witch-hunt. Ulterior motives will be assumed. But the honor and glory of God is always worth defending.
When sinful compromise brings scandal upon the name of Christ and his bride, the courageous response is swift and decisive discipline.